HER KIND: Thank you Shara and Siobhan for joining the Conversation—it’s great to have your voices here. In thinking about your experiences as Westerners in the Middle East, does this statement from Georgia O’Keeffe, “. . .there is something unexplored about woman that only a woman can explore,” resonate with you as writers?
Shara Lessley: As far as I’m concerned, the imagination is a muscle the writer flexes regardless of his or her sex. While I recognize O’Keeffe’s impulse, it’s her inclination toward the absolute I resist; that is, the notion that there’s “something unexplored about woman that only a woman can explore.” That pesky qualification is problematic—as a poet, am I limited to certain subjects because I’m a woman? Are there experiences only male writers can investigate, study, or explore? I certainly hope not . . .
The tradition of writing across gender-related perspectives is long: thus, the many persona poems by Ai, including those in the voices of the Kennedy brothers, Elvis Presley, and a boy who’s murdered his family; thus, work by Emily Dickinson who so beautifully subverts gender roles, or blends and synthesizes them. Adrienne Rich and Patricia Smith both explore male perspectives in various poems. Once they’ve read it, who can forget the haunting testimony of Frank Bidart’s anorexic speaker “Ellen West”? In “Mushrooms,” Plath not only transcends boundaries of gender, but of humanity as well by eerily fleshing out the voices of fungi that “Overnight, very / Whitely, discreetly, / Very quietly … / Take hold on the loam, / Acquire the air.”
Almost every writer friend of mine relies on some degree of research. For example, I feel well-equipped to write a poem or essay about giving birth in the Middle East, since my son was born in Amman, Jordan, last September. However, part of exploring my own experience of labor and delivery in print would require the further investigation of details relating to Middle Eastern hospitals, practices, medical treatment of both ex-pat and Jordanian women throughout the Kingdom, etc. It seems to me that a male author of poetry or fiction with sufficient imaginative power could write the same subject from a woman’s point of view so long as he thoroughly sought out the particulars, conducted interviews, or studied testimonials. Fact-finding is one way to explore a subject. First-hand experience also helps.
What do you think, Siobhan? Could you have written the female characters that populate your short story collection You Know When the Men Are Gone without having lived at Fort Hood? Or, to more pointedly echo O’Keeffe, do you think there is something essential about the identities or experiences of military wives that only a woman author can explore?
Siobhan Fallon: I think that it was perhaps easier for me to write from the point of view of a military spouse living at Fort Hood in the way it is easier for most writers to listen to the adage of “write what you know,” but easy certainly isn’t the best or only way to do things. I’ve found that readers tend to appreciate when the author’s biography intersects a bit with her fiction, and therefore the reader can assume there is a certain indisputable authenticity to that particular work. But I agree, Shara, a writer should be capable of tackling material outside of her comfort zone. Writers ought to be talented enough at our craft that the material seems “true” to the reader regardless of whether or not we are writing within the confines of our own gender or life experiences.
Gustave Flaubert was fairly reclusive when he brought to life the insatiable Madame Bovary; Tennessee Williams gave voice to a plethora of iconic, displaced, broken-hearted women; Flannery O’Connor evoked the dark and lonely minds of her male characters just as well as she illuminated the hard-scrabble thoughts of her women. I found the female narrator, Patty Berglund, the most successful character of Jonathan Franzen’s oft-lauded Freedom, and Jennifer Egan, in her Pulitzer Prize winning A Visit From the Goon Squad, deftly shifts from male and female voices in her chapters.
However, I must admit I was a little tentative when I decided to take on the point of view of the young male soldiers in my collection, unsure if I could handle an experience so different from my own. But that first male character, Sergeant Moge, was clamoring inside of me. And perhaps it wasn’t such a leap after all. For years I had been listening to my husband’s and other soldiers’ stories from Iraq and Afghanistan. I felt like it was just as much of a stretch to write in the voice of my character Ellen Roddy, a cancer patient and mother of a teen-age daughter who goes missing, when I had never been diagnosed with breast cancer and my only child was an infant at the time of writing. As you said, imagination, and stretching that imagination, defines the scope of a writer’s work. To say you can only truly understand your own gender is to say that you can only write about your own experience, and I think that undermines the whole point of writing fiction.
Experience lends a certain credibility to your writing but truly great writing transcends personal experience, and I think that is what writers ought to strive for. Shara, I spent about nine months living in Jordan, and you are currently living in Amman. Both of us are writing works that take place in the Middle East. I am a writer who depends a great deal on the setting of my stories, and I usually use details about the places where I have lived or am living, so writing about Jordan is a natural choice for me as I work on a new novel. Do you share this tendency or is there something specific about the Middle East that inspires you?
SL: The short answer is that most things about the Middle East fascinate me—its combination of history and modernity, the complexity of its politics and languages, the contradictions of its varied terrains and ancient ruins. Thus far, the years I’ve spent in Amman have played out like a good poem—equal parts mystery and clarity. In high school, I had a Jordanian friend whose aunts, uncles, and cousins would arrive from Amman each summer. I remember the large backyard gatherings that lasted past midnight: strung-up lights, oversized serving platters and trays piled with meat and rice, tiny glass cups filled with coffee and tea, bubbling water pipes, many of the women wearing beautiful headscarves and gold-threaded abayas. When we first moved to Amman and began having meals in the homes of my husband’s Jordanian colleagues, fragments of my high school memories flooded back—the colors, textures, sounds, and smells that I experienced almost twenty years before made more sense now that I re-encountered them in context. Part of me still can’t believe I’ve experienced the Hashemite Kingdom in different stages of my life—both as a girl of 16 in California’s San Joaquin Valley, and later as an ex-pat poet exploring firsthand the desert capitol of Amman.
Recounting the above experience underscores one of the difficulties of writing about the Middle East (or any part of the world where you’re only a temporary member of the community); that is, finding the right distance between you, as the narrator, and your subject. The problem with the anecdote about my early “experience” with Jordan is that it seems to romanticize the culture. The combination of nostalgia, gratitude, and wonder is but one of many feelings I have about this particular place. In contrast are those harder facts and difficult truths. As a resident of Amman, I confront these on a regular basis not via firsthand experience, since my status as a Westerner in this city provides a number of comforts and privileges, but by conversations and interactions with the local people who live in Jordan.
I’m curious, who’s narrating your novel? Is the primary point of view that of an American or Jordanian? Are you encountering any of the same pitfalls while trying to write about the Middle East?
SF: I think you summed it up perfectly when you said one of the most difficult aspects is “finding the right distance between you, as the narrator, and your subject.” I too am aware that my perception of life in Jordan is skewed by my being a Westerner, my scant understanding of Arabic, even our living in Abdoun, a somewhat ritzy part of Amman near the US Embassy. Although I tried to forge Jordanian friendships, I realize that I understand very little of the intricacies of Jordanian daily life. At this juncture, without the tremendous research it would require or the years of firsthand experience, I would not presume to write from the point of view of a Jordanian.
And yet I presume to set the majority of my novel in Jordan! There are five “narrators,” most of the point-of-views are a close third person, with the occasional first person narrative, and all of them are Americans who experience Jordan in very different ways. There is a professor who is an avowed Arabist, his wife who despises traveling, an army major who views Jordan through the filter of his past deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, a young woman who strives, with pure but misplaced intentions, to “fix” the Middle Eastern view of male/female relationships, and a final narrator who has lived in Jordan for a few years and stubbornly clings to her “Americanism” as both a shield and a barrier from the world around her. All are operating on a stubbornness to force the Middle East to conform to their distinct visions. But of course Jordan confounds them because it is not something that can be easily defined or pigeonholed. By presenting these different perspectives of Westerners living in or visiting Jordan, I am hoping that the reader comes away with some middle ground closer to the truth, or at least gets a sense of the unknowable rich nature of a place steeped in such history and tradition.
SL: The primary characters of your novel sound fascinating, and I’m fairly certain that I’ve met several versions of them during our two years thus far in Amman. What strikes me most about your plan for the new book is the idea that no matter how thoroughly we explore or experience a particular place, it ultimately remains “unknowable.” What is it that people say about our human capacity for understanding? The more we learn, the less we know? What I’ve discovered in trying to write about the Middle East is that exploring a region is much easier to do in person than on the page. Whatever the genre, writing about nations and cultures from an outsider’s perspective presents a series of unique hazards: appropriation, reductive observation, dealing sensitively with disenfranchised groups and political unrest. Even when one has been immersed in a part of the world, it’s difficult to characterize a culture without objectifying it. As a guest of this country and one who is aware that my status as an American influences the extent to which I “see” all things international, the last thing I want to do is to exoticize the Middle East or characterize its people in a reductive way. As much as I’m interested in the political implications of place—and considering that Jordan shares borders with Israel and the West Bank, as well as Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Syria, there are many such implications—I’m more interested in the concealed interior life of this country as a whole, which brings me to an important question: which authors do you think write best about other cultures without objectifying them? Have there been particular difficulties you’ve faced while trying to write about the Middle East? Sensitivities, perhaps, you didn’t have to consider when writing the short-story collection?
SF: I agree that an outsider perspective presents unique hazards, but I think subverting a narrator’s reductive observations and appropriations can be exciting for a fiction writer. I often choose narrators who are outsiders, or interlopers, preferring to have a bit of distance between their point of view and the other characters in my stories. I have found that literature is rarely objective, and it can be exhilarating to present an unreliable narrator and demand that the reader figure out that the outsider perspective is just that, outside of the fold, not part of the whole, and certainly not capable of telling the entire story.
I think the stories in my collection, You Know When the Men Are Gone, share that outsider perspective with the narrators of my novel-in-progress. There are obstacles separating each character from the main group; Meg Brady, who, as a new army spouse, is skeptical about the rules within base living and longs for the freedoms of her civilian life. Kit Murphy, who, as an injured soldier on his way out of the army he loves, is separated from his brothers-in-arms, and yet he can never wholly return to civilian life. Josie Shaeffer, whose husband died in Iraq, wedges her bitter grief between herself and the army community. Also, as I wrote the stories, I was acutely aware of how all of my characters are markedly different just by their being a part of the military world, part of that one percent of America who are affected by our country’s actions in the Middle East in a way that civilian America is not.
These differences are slight when compared with those of a Westerner observing life in Jordan, but, as I said, I am attracted to that sort of narration and it echoes some of my own experiences. After college, I spent a year teaching English in Japan, and when I returned home my writings were full of the gaijin (foreigner) role in Japanese society. My husband and I lived in Hawaii for a few years and, while Hawaii is of course part of the United States, there is a native Hawaiian culture very different from stateside America, and the mainlanders are always aware of their haole status. I have delved into this distinction in my past writing as well.
I keep quite a few books on hand for contemplating details of life in the Middle East (Edward Said’s Orientalism, Fadia Faqir’s Pillars of Salt, Shawn Dorman’s collected essays Inside a U.S. Embassy, and a couple of modern Arabic fiction anthologies translated into English). However, I can’t seem to think of successful books written by an outsider that fully illuminate another culture without being reductive, especially one about the Middle East. There is the memoir Married to a Bedouin by Marguerite van Geldermalsen. Geldermalsen, a New Zealand-born nurse, recounts how she meets and marries a Bedouin in Petra, and then lives with him for twenty-four years. But even she admits she was treated differently than many of her fellow Bedouin wives because she was a Westerner. I can think of quite a few books that deliberately delineates the “outsider” perspective from the world from which she is narrating, giving the reader a narrator who conceals as much as she reveals. I find myself turning again and again to Graham Greene’s The Quiet American (Vietnam), Joan Didion’s A Book of Common Prayer (a fictional Central American country), and Peter Carey’s My Life as a Fake (Malaysia), to study the complexities of each novel’s unreliable narrators as well as figure out how these narrators view and translate the cultures they are living in.
Are there particular works of literature that you find yourself rereading as you write your new collection? When I was writing my stories, I tried very hard to keep them as nonpolitical as possible. So I am always a little amazed when a reader finishes the collection and seems to think I am taking a clear political stance. Although you say you are most interested in the “concealed interior life” of Jordan, is there a place for politics in your poetry?
SL: In order to situate myself in the goings-on of the region, I read (and am still reading) a great deal of prose: Arab folktales; Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East: 1776 to the Present; Price of Honor and Paradise Beneath Her Feet (books of nonfiction about honor killings and the role women play in human rights issues across the region); Flaubert’s memoirs of traveling in Egypt; King Abdullah II’s recent book, Our Last Best Chance. Like you, I read Married to a Bedouin, as well as Benjamin Orbach’s Live From Jordan: Letters Home from My Journey Through the Middle East and Thomas Friedman’s From Beirut to Jerusalem. I really enjoyed Fouad Ajami’s The Dream Palace of Arabs, a book of nonfiction that culls together Arab politics, history, and poetry.
As an American exploring Jordan, I think it’s impossible to keep politics out of the writing. However, I’m well aware that the worst political poems are either didactic or thinly veiled propaganda. I also know that given the tensions between the West and East, anything I write about this part of the world will carry some heat. Case in point: Brian Brodeur recently posted an interview with me for his terrific series, How a Poem Happens. Although I’d answered his questions about my poem, “Advice from the Predecessor’s Wife,” several months prior, our conversation was published on the eve of July 4th. The tone of “Advice . . .” is both earnest and satirical. It juxtaposes helpful tidbits about moving to Amman with a number of stereotypes about Arab culture. Like many Americans, the poem is very enthusiastic and sometimes ugly. It prompted one online reader (anonymously, of course) to write this: “Please Shara, stay in Jordan.”
Please Shara, stay in Jordan. Although a friend suggested that I take the message to mean something along the lines of “This poem is so beautiful! Please, stay in whatever space allowed you to make it, so that you can make more . . . ,” I have no doubt that the author’s real intent was an indictment of my American loyalty. Part of what literature affords us (demands of us!) as writers and readers is the exploration of complex feelings. Such explorations often reveal moments of hypocrisy, contradiction. It saddens me to think that our national impulses have become so polemical that a poem that underscores human duplicity (not exclusive to Americans, by the way!) is misconstrued as evidence of infidelity. Although it was startling to be accused—however subtly—of being unpatriotic on the day we, as American citizens, unite to celebrate our country, I can’t say I was entirely surprised. The irony, however, is that living on foreign soil has given me the opportunity to see America with clearer eyes. I have never felt so thankful to have been born in the United States. I have never been more grateful that my birthright affords me the freedom to write a poem like “Advice from the Predecessor’s Wife,” which attempts to underscore a few unsettling misconceptions about the Middle East.
SF: I adore your “Advice from the Predecessor’s Wife”! I feel you were able to sum up in two pages what I am trying to express in an entire novel, that murky territory of misconception and misunderstanding often experienced by ex-pats. I assumed your poem was narrated by a cynical Westerner with little patience for the culture around her. Hers is a very authentic voice, knowing and archly amused with herself, and I can see a reader mistaking her point of view for your own. Which I think is a triumph, that you created a voice so vivid that the reader has difficulty separating fiction from an assumption of fact. I have found that to be one of the benefits, and dangers, of “writing what you know.”
I too have received some mixed reactions. I’ve gotten both moving praise and scathing criticism from fellow military spouses—the community I thought would most embrace my work. A war widow sent an email thanking me for letting her see she was “normal” and “belonged” and was no longer an “outsider looking in” at her grief and displacement over her husband’s combat death in Afghanistan. Another spouse resented the fictional stories in my collection that dealt with extramarital affairs, signing off her expletive-laced email with “Don’t quit your day job.” As you said, literature ought to examine and perhaps reveal human complexities, and I think it also ought to provoke an emotional reaction in the reader. I’d prefer that response to be a positive one, but I’ll take a few naysayers if it proves I am tapping into genuine emotion. And I certainly understand military spouses feeling especially protective about their sphere and experiences. Perhaps in the same way that the individual who commented about your poem felt threatened by what she saw as some disregard for America, and was moved to express that.
We’ve touched upon American reactions to our work. I understand your current manuscript-in-progress, tentatively titled The Explosive Expert’s Wife, covers subjects from stateside bombings in the US to the beauty of Amman and its people. Do you mind telling us a little bit more?
SL: Thanks so much for your feedback. Of course, while making one’s work public invites a certain amount of conversation and criticism, I’m still surprised at the kinds of quick (and sometimes cruel) potshots people take at others, particularly online. An “expletive-laced email”? I can’t fathom this type of message in response to You Know When the Men Are Gone. Your stories humanize soldiers and their families, and extend and enrich your readers’ understanding of the multifaceted nature of military “sacrifice”—sacrifice that involves not just physical risk on foreign soil but deeply personal vulnerability stateside (emotional, psychological, familial, marital, health-related, and otherwise). At any rate, I think you’re smart to recognize the book’s admirers and naysayers as evidence of the collection’s power to provoke. Although writing about politicized material has its challenges, I agree in Shelley’s 1821 characterization of poets (and creative writers when we’re at our best) as “the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” I also agree with Adrienne Rich when she says, “I’m both a poet and one of the ‛everybodies’ of my country. I live with manipulated fear, ignorance, cultural confusion and social antagonism.”
It’s this sense of fear (however manipulated, however legitimate) and cultural confusion that compels me to explore Jordan, America, and the Middle East in my new work. As you suggest, The Explosive Expert’s Wife aims not only to examine and destabilize the darker fears and prejudices associated with the region, but also to celebrate the region’s beauty and mystery. The counterparts to the ex-pat poems feature stateside explosive ranges, government labs, and American terrorists like brothers James and John McNamara (who dynamited the Los Angeles Times building in 1910, killing 21 people and injuring more than 100), and the Unabomber. My hope is that the poems will speak individually, as well as to each other—“The Explosive Experts Wife” to “The Accused Terrorist’s Wife,” for example—in order to spark a larger dialogue about notions of terrorism, marriage, culture, country, gender, and home. It’s a tall order!
Already, the hourglass has turned in many ways—soon, I’ll be counting down the last year of residence in Amman. I haven’t written a poem about Arab Spring, although we’ve watched the movement evolve from its beginning. I haven’t written anything about the 150,000+ displaced Syrians who have crossed into Jordan, most of whom are living in temporary housing less than an hour from Amman. I’ve yet to draft a poem about the hotel bombings that terrorized the Kingdom’s capitol in 2005. It’s unclear to me whether I’ll be able to successfully explore such complicated topics in verse. Sometimes I wonder whether certain things can even be described. As an American poet, a wife and mother, I feel an obligation to try.
SF: Thank you for your generous words about my collection. I am really intrigued by your work-in-progress. I haven’t heard of any current work of literature that tackles the concept of “terrorism” in quite this same way, viewing a vast spectrum from a mostly Western point of view (the 1910 Los Angeles Times building bombing to the post-9/11 world), creating dialogues/echoing images between certain poems as you mentioned, challenging our assumptions of who become “terrorists,” engaging the reader to think beyond our American boundaries and concerns. Having read your first collection, Two-Headed Nightingale, I have no doubt that The Explosive Expert’s Wife will be extraordinary.
Click here for photos from Siobhan and Shara’s travels in the Middle East.
Siobhan Fallon’s debut collection of stories, You Know When the Men Are Gone, was listed as a Best Book of 2011 by The San Francisco Chronicle and Janet Maslin of The New York Times. Her stories and essays have appeared in Women’s Day, Good Housekeeping, New Letters, Publishers’ Weekly, among others, and she writes a fiction series for Military Spouse Magazine. She earned her MFA at the New School in New York City and lives in Falls Church, Virginia. siobhanfallon.com
Shara Lessley is the author of Two-Headed Nightingale and a recipient of the Wallace Stegner, Olive O’Connor, Reginald S. Tickner, and Diane Middlebrook poetry fellowships, as well as the “Discovery”/The Nation prize. Her poems and essays have appeared in Ploughshares, The Kenyon Review, The Southern Review, New England Review, and The Missouri Review, among others. Shara currently lives in the Middle East and can be reached at sharalessley.com.